May 20, 2024

The 2023 NFL draft class has started strong through the first five weeks of the regular season. Los Angeles Rams receiver Puka Nacua, a fifth-round pick, flourished on the field when Cooper Kupp was injured to start the season, and Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud has looked poised under center. Plus, the 5-0 Philadelphia Eagles‘ defense is surely benefitting from defensive tackle Jalen Carter‘s great play to start out his career.

How do the rookies stack up? We polled five NFL analysts — Matt Bowen, Jeff Legwold, Matt Miller, Brooke Pryor and Jordan Reid — to make a consensus ranking of the top 10 rookies and let each weigh in on those players, along with three who just missed the final list. They also pointed out the biggest rookie class takeaway, provided an outlook on first-round quarterback situations, picked an overperforming late-rounder and underperforming first-rounder, and named the rookie who has the best single-game performance so far. Let’s start our top 10 ranking with a record-breaking first-round quarterback.

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Top 10 | Just missed
Big questions

Stats: 1,461 passing yards, 7 TD passes, 0 INTs
Drafted: No. 2 overall

Why is Stroud No. 1? Let’s start with the fact that the first 186 regular-season pass attempts of his career that have gone without an interception — and that’s now an NFL record. Even in the face of the pressure, he has played with composure and quality decision-making.

Stroud has been busy, too. He has the fifth-most attempts in the league, is one of seven quarterbacks with at least 200 total dropbacks and has a QBR (56.2) better than Trevor Lawrence, Derek Carr and Deshaun Watson. Stroud is finding success on a Texans team swimming with young players. — Legwold

Stats: 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Drafted: No. 9 overall

Carter has certainly made a case to be the NFL’s top rookie with his disruptive traits on the Eagles’ defensive front. He has 12 pressures, and his pass rush win rate of 23.5% ranks 13th in the league. If you watch his tape, you can see his interior matchup ability, power and initial first-step quickness.

Carter has game-wrecking talent at a premium position, and if he continues playing like this, he’ll be in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year. — Bowen

Stats: 46 catches, 572 yards, 2 TDs
Drafted: No. 177 overall

This fifth-round pick leads the NFL in receptions and is second in receiving yards behind only Tyreek Hill. He has 10 catches of at least 20 yards, tied for fourth most. Rams QB Matthew Stafford was without top receiver Cooper Kupp for the first four weeks of the season, but it didn’t matter because Nacua exploded in Sean McVay’s pass-happy offense. Nacua had at least 100 receiving yards in three of the Rams’ five games.

With Kupp back, Nacua’s weekly output might look more like his 71-yard, one-touchdown performance from Week 5, but he has established himself as a reliable target and is on the radar for Offensive Rookie of the Year. — Pryor

Stats: 38 carries, 460 rushing yards, 5 rushing TDs, 9 catches, 67 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
Drafted: No. 84 overall

Achane, a third-round pick, quickly turned into one of the most dynamic running backs in the league. His 460 rushing yards ranks second to only the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey, and Achane is averaging 12.1 yards per carry, which leads the NFL by nearly five yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his per-carry average is the most for any player through a team’s first five games in league history (min. 25 rushes).

After the great start, he is now expected to miss multiple weeks with a knee injury and is a candidate for injured reserve. — Reid

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What does De’Von Achane’s injury mean for Jeff Wilson Jr. in fantasy?

With De’Von Achane expected to miss mutliple weeks, Daniel Dopp strongly recommends grabbing Jeff Wilson Jr. in fantasy

Stats: 23 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 defensive TD
Drafted: No. 5 overall

A hamstring injury suffered in training camp meant a slow start to the season for Witherspoon, but in three games, he has shown why he was the top defensive back drafted in April. Witherspoon has one interception — which he returned 97 yards for a touchdown — four pass breakups and a pair of sacks. Given his instincts and the fact that opposing offenses have to choose between challenging him or Riq Woolen, it stands to reason he’ll have plenty of opportunities to add more interceptions this season.

Seattle seems determined to put Witherspoon in a position to make plays in the passing game and as a blitzer, so expect legitimate DROY numbers from him. — Miller

Stats: 25 tackles, 1 INT, 1 defensive TD
Drafted: No. 45 overall

Branch missed the Lions’ Week 5 game against the Panthers with a right ankle injury and is a question mark for this week’s game against the Buccaneers. But through four games, he was tied for the team lead in tackles (25) and tackles for loss (three), and he had returned an interception off QB Patrick Mahomes for a touchdown against the Chiefs in the season-opener. Not bad.

Branch plays with physicality in the run game, has veteran-like awareness and is decisive in coverage — all must-haves for a slot corner in the league. — Legwold

Stats: 17 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT
Drafted: No. 17 overall

Gonzalez suffered a right shoulder injury in Week 4 that put him on the injured reserve list, but he makes the cut here due to his performance in those first four games and, most notably, his coverage ability. Gonzalez recorded one interception, one sack, three pass breakups and 14 solo tackles over Weeks 1-4.

He is sticky in coverage, is fluid in transition and had great speed to defend routes at all three levels of the field. Plus, Gonzalez has shown backfield vision to operate as a zone defender from off-the-ball alignments. The loss of Gonzalez was evident in the Patriots’ 34-0 loss to the Saints on Sunday. — Bowen

Stats: 25 catches, 289 yards, 3 TDs
Drafted: No. 34 overall

This sentence works better read in a deadpan Meryl Streep/Devil Wears Prada voice: An Iowa tight end blowing up in the NFL? Groundbreaking. Jokes aside, what LaPorta is doing through five games is pretty darn close to groundbreaking. Against the Panthers this past weekend, LaPorta scored two touchdowns, including a 31-yarder off an end-around flea-flicker, making him the first tight end in franchise history to have multiple 30-yard catches in a season. He leads all tight ends with 289 receiving yards and is averaging 11.6 yards per reception.

His emergence is also a big boost to the Lions’ offense, opening things up in the run game for David Montgomery and fellow rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. Things are only looking up for the 4-1 Lions and LaPorta. — Pryor

Stats: 67 carries, 364 rushing yards, 0 rushing TDs, 21 catches, 146 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
Drafted: No. 8 overall

Robinson was one of the favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year coming into the season and has shown flashes of why Atlanta was so comfortable with selecting him in the top 10. Despite only having one game with at least 15 carries, he remains a featured option in multiple phases in Arthur Smith’s offense, as he’s tied for eighth in the league in rushing yards.

Robinson’s tackle-breaking ability was among his best traits at Texas and has translated seamlessly to the NFL. But some of his best plays have come as a pass-catcher. Although he has not reached the end zone as a rusher, he has two receiving touchdowns. — Reid

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Liz Loza impressed Bijan still produced despite tough day

Liz Loza acknowledges that fantasy managers were sweating Bijan Robinson’s early numbers but still got production as he scored a touchdown late.

Stats: 21 tackles, 1 sack
Drafted: No. 3 overall

Anderson has been slightly overshadowed by Stroud in Houston but still fantastic in his own right. The edge rusher has just one sack in five games, but he has added 21 tackles and a blocked field goal to go with it. Anderson’s pass rush win rate of 30.1% is third-best in the league and shows he’s getting to the quarterback. And as the season goes on, he’ll start to close on the passer better to turn those pressures into sacks.

His flashes through five games have been notable, and my bet would be that Anderson will end the season with double-digit sacks. — Miller

Just missed

Keeanu Benton, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers: The second-rounder (No. 49 overall) has played 38% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps. Benton has already shown a quality run stop win rate of 34.4%, which is in the same statistical neighborhood as the Saints’ Cameron Jordan (34.3%) and the Jets’ Quinnen Williams (34.6%). — Legwold

Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore Ravens: With the injuries in the Ravens’ offense, the No. 22 overall pick had to quickly become a consistent option for QB Lamar Jackson. Flowers leads the Ravens in catches (29) and receiving yards (317). He’s still on the hunt for his first touchdown catch, and he has sprinkled in two drops, but it’s clear that Jackson trusts him. — Legwold

Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Richardson will miss some time due to a right shoulder injury suffered in Week 5 against the Titans. But the first-rounder has shown promise with seven total touchdowns (three passing, four rushing) and has displayed why he has an immense ceiling. — Legwold

What is the biggest early takeaway from the 2023 draft class?

Houston’s aggressiveness to land Stroud and Anderson with back-to-back picks is paying off with the best early returns of the 2023 draft class. Not only does Stroud look like the top rookie quarterback, but Anderson is a leader on the Texans’ defense and is playing well. Plus, receiver Tank Dell (third-round pick) is averaging 17.1 yards per reception, and linebacker Henry To’oTo’o (fifth-round pick) looks great. This 2-3 Texans team is ascending in the AFC thanks in part to their rookies’ play. — Pryor

What’s the outlook for the two first-round QBs who didn’t make this list?

Richardson (No. 4 pick) missed one game with a concussion, and he’s now down with a shoulder injury that could keep him out multiple weeks. We’ve seen his playmaking traits, both as a runner and thrower, but he will need to log more reps against pressure when he returns and improve there. Richardson’s QBR of 34.4 when blitzed ranks 29th in the NFL.

Carolina’s Bryce Young (No. 1 pick) must improve his decision-making and ball security while also generating more explosive plays. He has two games with multiple interceptions in four starts, and his four explosive-play throws rank 34th in the league. — Bowen

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Is the pressure already on Bryce Young to succeed?

Chuck Pagano, Pat McAfee and A.J. Hawk discuss Bryce Young’s struggles early in his NFL career.

Which late-rounder is overperforming right now?

Texans linebacker Henry To’oTo’o. Drafted at No. 167 overall, he has stepped right into the middle of DeMeco Ryans’ defense, and his instincts against the run and instincts in coverage have continued to stand out each week. He leads all first-year linebackers with 39 tackles and has been among the biggest bright spots of an impressive rookie class. To’oTo’o is known for his football sense and see-read-react ability on the second level, and we’re seeing it. — Reid

Which first-rounder is underperforming right now?

Raiders defensive end Tyree Wilson. The pass-rusher was drafted to take pressure off Maxx Crosby, and that need has only heightened since the Raiders released Chandler Jones. Wilson has zero sacks and a 4.3% pass rush win rate through four games. He needs to get on the field more and start making an impact that lives up to the No. 7 overall pick that the Raiders used on him. — Miller

What’s the best single-game rookie performance so far?

The rookie class has already had many top performances this season. Stroud’s 306-yard, two-touchdown day in the Texans’ rout over the Steelers is on the shortlist. So is Carter’s two-sack, four-tackle game against the Rams in Week 5. However, it’s hard to beat Nakua’s Week 4 performance when he turned 10 targets into nine catches for 163 yards and a touchdown in the Rams overtime win over the Colts. — Legwold

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